“That’s the new Aston Martin, dad,” I hear a child’s voice say as I walk out of a French service station on the A28.
Not long after that, on the road, a McLaren 570S pulls up alongside me. The passenger lowers her window and snaps a shot on her smartphone before the driver zips off. Then an Audi S5 comes up behind me, urgently flashing his lights in my rear view mirror. I’m surprised when the driver goes past giving me a ferocious thumbs-up and a smile.
That, in the space of 15 minutes, is a microcosm of what it is like to drive an Aston Martin DB11 down to the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Clearly, it’s intoxicatingly indulgent, and unlikely to happen under my own financial steam, but it also highlights the sense of belonging that everybody who goes to Le Mans feels.
Whether you're a supercar owner, a long-time fan, a team member or a first-timer, everyone is going to the same place for one reason: to appreciate rapid cars in a seriously fast place. That mutual shared respect temporarily suppresses circumstantial differences, and the camaraderie is extensive.
Actually driving the DB11 around La Sarthe is a wide-ranging experience, and easier than you might expect in a supercar. There is boot space for two bags, (unnecessary) waterproof paraphernalia and a spare pair of shoes. When in Gran Turismo mode, the DB11 behaves precisely as a luxury car should so that when clambering out at service stations after two hours driving, you’re completely fresh.
There’s a Sport mode to wake you up if needs be, but even when in it, the DB11 rarely feels on edge. It tempts you gently in and feels as if it holds your hand until you’re confident to go to new places with it all by yourself. And all the while, it never relinquishes its wonderful poise, which, to me at least, felt unique with personality.
Perhaps the most useful gadget on the DB11 is the speed limiter stalk that helps avoid risk the wrath of the Gendarmes hiding in ambush. But it seems that they are the only ones out to ruin your trip. In fact, everywhere you go, people give the thumbs up, wave you through at junctions, allow you into gaps in queues.
Even the annually raucous crowd demanding burn-outs in Arnage town seem to lower their water cannons in respect – which, for Aston Martin, seems universal. In my experience, this is not the case with every brand.
Perhaps it’s that unique relationship between British cars and Le Mans that has existed since the race’s inception in the early 1920s and which makes the race an essential pilgrimage for 100,000 or so Brits each year.
Still now, many British teams, drivers and marques enter, and there is no question it brings an added dimension to the crackling atmosphere.
The climax of the 2017 event provided perhaps the perfect example of this. In the pits during those final laps, when factory Aston Martin driver Jonny Adam found himself engaged in a fight with the rival Chevrolet Corvette, I was surrounded by engineers and mechanics from unrelated teams.
When Adam made his daring pass at the final chicane that secured the GTE Pro class win, the entire pit box, along with the ones either side of us, cheered as loudly as the fans in the grandstand. I’d never heard anything like it at La Sarthe.
Nearly everyone, it seems, really does love a British winner.